Libertarian Misanthropy to Philanthropy

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What’s the difference between a libertarian, a liberal and a conservative? No, this isn’t the set-up to a cheap joke. One major difference is the amount that each group gives to charity.

Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, began talking about the “charity gap” between conservatives and liberals in his book “Who Really Cares,” which flipped the “liberals care more” talking point on its head. It showed that households headed by conservatives give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals, and a subsequent Google study found the gap to be even greater.

There was then a flurry of backlash, because liberals wanted the studies to control for the religious factor: if religion is excluded, how do those numbers compare? It turns out, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do, but they give a lower percentage of income – even to secular causes.

How does this relate to libertarianism? Easy. We’re the denominator that’s bringing down the conservative charitable givings, because libertarians are much more likely to be the “secular conservatives” that give even less than liberals.

Why is that? The libertarian party highlights how, in order to address poverty in this country, there needs to be a dollar-to-dollar tax credit system for charitable givings. The party line is that charity is good.

Perhaps it’s time we examine our own hearts instead of others. Forbes’s Tom Watson wrote a piece comparing the motivations behind conservative giving and liberal giving. Highlighting a 2012 Rice study, he writes,

They crafted slightly different descriptions of a single charity, Rebuilding Together, which creates affordable homes for low income families. They found that Republicans were three times more likely to part with their money…when described as ‘supporting working American families following traditions and supporting their communities.’ On the flip side, Democrats were twice as likely to kick in when the organization was described as ‘ensuring the protection of a home to every individual.’

The charitable divide is so apparent because these two groups know what they stand for. Republicans may be what we could call “charity-positive,” that is, supportive of individuals fighting against hardships. Democrats may be more “charity-negative,” that is, supportive of individuals’ protection against hardships. I believe this jives with the numbers – Democrats are giving less because they believe government protection will often be more effective than individual efforts, which is why they support government welfare programs more than Republicans.

People’s giving seems to depend very much on what they think will work. Everyone knows a Republican giving to their church, donating blood, volunteering on a local level, leading a Boy Scout troop. Everyone knows a Democrat who traveled to a third-world country for a year, providing education on HIV/AIDs. Both are admirable, and both are necessary.

Are libertarians giving less because we don’t believe any of that works, or because we don’t think anything works?

If so, we need to start putting our money where our mouth is. Government-enforced charity may not be charity, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are people that need a hand up and not a hand out. Charity doesn’t have to be religious, and it doesn’t have to be globe-trotting. It just needs to happen, or Libertarians will continue to be perceived as the party that doesn’t care.